A worthy destination for pilgrims

By Aung Shin
Volume 31, No. 615
February 20 - 26, 2012

Elephants carry pilgrims across a creek in Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park.
Pic: Aung Shin

MYANMAR is full of destinations for pilgrimage tours, most of them important pagodas where Buddhists travel in large numbers to pray and pay homage.

Many people return to the same sites several times, but others search for new and interesting places to go, motivated by an urge to experience parts of the country they have never visited before while at the same time gaining merit from the pilgrimage.

For foreign visitors, travelling to these important shrines provides a great introduction to Buddhism and a valuable way to gain insight into Myanmar culture.

One of the more breathtaking pilgrimage sites anywhere in the country is Alaungdaw Kathapa Pagoda in Sagaing Region, where the body of Shin Maha Kathapa – one of the original followers of the Buddha who in his lifetime gained the status of an arhat (one who has attained enlightenment) – is said to be enshrined.

The pagoda is located in Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) west of the town of Monywa, in an area of deep forest and abundant wildlife.

The remote location means that the pagoda is impossible to reach during the monsoon season, and is therefore accessible for only half the year. During the peak season, in February and March, it can become quite crowded with visitors.

Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park can also be visited in December and January, but many people find the weather to be too cold at this time, especially at night. So for most pilgrims the best time is February or March, when the weather is at its finest.

Another reason to visit during this time is the Alaungdaw Kathapa Pagoda Festival, which is held around the full moon of the lunar month of Tabodwe, which usually occurs in February. The area around the pagoda can become quite hectic with pilgrims on the full moon day.

This is an important time to be at the pagoda, because many people believe that the full moon day holds the possibility that the rock door to the legendary cave where Shin Maha Kathapa is said to be enshrined might open.

Reaching the pagoda is challenging even during the dry season. The shortest route is directly from Monywa, which requires crossing the Chindwin River at Hpo Win Daung, a pilgrimage site in its own right with hundreds of Buddha images enshrined in caves along the river.

The highway heading west from the river will take travellers through the small town of Yinmabin, with many smaller villages dotting the agricultural landscape along the way.

The road is paved for awhile, but eventually the highway must be left behind, and the rest of the way to Alaungdaw Kathapa Pagoda must be made on a rough and dusty country road. This part of the journey can be difficult and uncomfortable.

Travellers will eventually reach the village of Kapaing, the gateway to Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park and a rest area for pilgrims on their way to the pagoda. Food is available here, and during peak season it can be quite crowded with people and vehicles.

The pagoda is about 32 kilometres (20 miles) past Kapaing. The rough, mountainous road is open only during the dry season, and only official buses and private cars in good condition are allowed to drive it. The number of passengers in each vehicle is also limited.

About 11 kilometres (7 miles) from Kapaing is a small camp called Gonnyinpin. This is the official entrance to Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, and it is here that vehicles are inspected and drivers must pay a toll to continue.

Beyond this, travellers will be treated to great scenery, with beautiful jungle and mountain streams along the way to Thapatesay camp, 21 kilometres (13 miles) past Gonnyinpin.

Thapatesay is the last stop for motorised vehicles. To reach the pagoda, pilgrims must walk or ride on the back of elephant for the rest of the way. The elephant rides cost K2000 and take about 45 minutes.

Pilgrims who travel to Alaungdaw Kathapa Pagoda are often warned by their elders to behave properly because it is believed that the forest is protected by guardian spirits. Showing proper respect is necessary to ensure a safe trip through the deep and mysterious jungle.

It is recommended that pilgrims check in at a hostel as soon as they reach the pagoda site. There are more than 50 hostels, with a total capacity of about 200 people. The hostels are free of charge, but donations are accepted to help maintain the pagoda grounds.

There are several restaurants and souvenir shops near the pagoda compound, but there are no phone lines aside from the IP Star radio phone at the pagoda trustees’ office.

All pilgrims make a point of stopping by Alaungdaw Kathapa Pagoda to pay homage to the Buddha image housed there, but the main attraction is the alleged resting place of arhat Shin Maha Kathapa.

The legendary cave is located about 30 metres (100 feet) down a steep, narrow ravine. It is an exciting moment for pilgrims who descend into the ravine to feel the penetrating chill rising from the stream at the bottom, while water droplets fall from the damp walls above.

It is very quiet place. It is strange feeling, walking down into the canyon, gazing at the rocky wall that is said to be the doorway to the arhat’s shrine. It looks like an unbroken rock face, but according to legend it sometimes opens for just a few seconds before closing again. Locals say that this has happened only two times in many, many years.

Although most famous as a pilgrimage destination, Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park offers other attractions as well. Travellers can visit the elephant compound near the pagoda, and also explore the jungle.

The national park is said to be home to leopards, bears, goats and many other wild animals, as well as a wide variety of plant life. Some say it’s one of the best places in Myanmar to view wildlife.

Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park’s natural and cultural attractions make it a very promising place for tourism in the future, even if only a few foreign visitors are enjoying it at the moment.